Former president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed had often said that climate change could not be fought without democratic governance. Now, more than two months after the 7 February coup that deposed him from the presidency, the implications of that statement are being felt anew in the Indian Ocean island nation.
In 2008, Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. A longtime pro-democracy and human rights activist, during his time in office he spearheaded the Maldivian transition to democracy and became one of the most vocal heads of state on the issue of climate change.
Jon Shenk, filmmaker and director of the currently showing documentary about Nasheed, “The Island President,” spent a year and a half filming with the former head of state. “When he stepped into the presidency, he decided he was going to do whatever he possibly could to combat climate change, and use the power of his office to try to do that,” Shenk tells MediaGlobal. “To him, the climate change struggle is really an extension of his human rights struggle. He sees climate change as a threat to human rights and human livelihood.”
The Maldives has good reason to be concerned about the dangers of a transforming environmental landscape. With an average elevation of one and a half meters, the nation’s 1,190 islands only barely break the surface of the Indian Ocean. Phenomena such as coastal erosion, freshwater contamination, and coral bleaching have already been observed for many years, and the nation’s acute vulnerability to the effects of sea level rise and weather aberrations has been well documented.
While the political turmoil that followed the coup has drawn worldwide attention to the fragility of the Maldives’ young democracy, its effects have also revealed the fragility of the nation’s 2020 carbon neutral target and its international leadership role on climate change.
“The Maldives has been the most outspoken and engaged nation on earth about the climate crisis, mostly because of President Nasheed,” BIll McKibben, longtime environmental activist and founder of 350.org, tells MediaGlobal. “Until the coup, the Maldives was on track to become the planet’s first carbon-neutral nation. They were building windmills and so on—and in the process shaming the much richer countries doing far less.”
Nasheed announced that the Maldives would become entirely carbon-neutral by 2020 in March 2009. Though other countries, including Costa Rica, Iceland, Monaco, New Zealand, Niue, and Norway had previously revealed such plans, the Maldives would be the first to accomplish the feat if the 2020 target is met.
Since the announcement, two years of planning have gone into the project. Focusing mainly on the energy sector, the strategy involves implementing a combination of solar, wind, and biomass energy initiatives and storing extra power in batteries. Aviation emissions are also to be offset by purchasing and destroying European Union emissions trading certificates.
“We were in the process of moving from planning to implementation,” says Paul Roberts, Nasheed’s Advisor on International Media and Communications. “This year was going to be all about cutting green ribbons on solar.”
Until the coup, these efforts had already borne some fruit. Last December, the installation of solar panels on a number of public buildings in the Maldivian capital, including the president’s residence, was completed. In January, 61kW solar panels were powered up on the island of Villingili, the first installation of a 652kW project that will eventually cover six islands.
Furthermore, the Maldives had lined up over $40 million in startup funds in order to begin a full-scale implementation of the plan. Of this sum, the largest pledge was a $30 million commitment made by the Climate Investment Funds’ Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program for Low Income Countries (SREP). Its terms require the Maldives to procure an additional $120 million in capital, most of which were expected to come from private investments.
The coup raised serious doubts as to whether the Maldives will be able to attract these funds, and for the moment, it appears that it will not. At the intersessional meeting of the SREP Sub-Committee, held in Nairobi, Kenya in early March, the Maldives failed to present its investment plan for endorsement by the Committee and was not awarded the grant.
“Due to political developments in February, it was decided by the government that the submission date be delayed,” Yusuf Riza, the newly appointed Minister of Economic Development of the Maldives, tells MediaGlobal. “The government is currently reviewing the plan and looking at submitting it for approval, shortly.”
A timeline for this process was not presented to the Sub-Committee. According to Zhihong Zhang, Senior Program Coordinator of SREP, who was present at the March meeting and observed the update presentation made by the Maldivian government representative, Saeeda Umar, “It was not clear when the Maldives would be able to officially submit the investment plan for review and endorsement.”
The political instability that has resulted from Nasheed’s ouster has shaken investor confidence and raised the cost of borrowing drastically. “Nobody in their right mind would ever invest in the Maldives now,” Roberts tells MediaGlobal. “It’s too risky, and therefore I would be surprised if the Maldives even gets all that money that was pledged.”
Not only that, but the question of who will be able to carry on the plan’s implementation is up in the air. The team of advisors heading the project under Nasheed’s administration, including former Minister of Economic Development Mahmood Razee and Energy Advisor Mike Mason, resigned after the events of 7 February. At least for the moment, it seems that along with them went the economic and technical leadership necessary to realize the plan.
“That’s really tragic, because we really felt that we could deliver on this carbon neutral goal,” Roberts tells MediaGlobal. For the Maldives, which spends approximately 16 percent of its annual GDP on fossil fuel imports and suffers from the shocks of fluctuating oil prices, adopting renewable energy would go a long way toward assuring the nation’s economic and energy security.
“We felt that if the Maldives could prove it could do that,” says Roberts, “Then lots of other small island states and developing countries would follow suit, because there are lots of advantages to not being dependent on oil.”
On the international level, Nasheed and his team, in partnership with the TckTckTck Campaign of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, were organizing a large event at Rio+20 to urge other nations to jump on the bandwagon. The goal for the event was to persuade ten other heads of state to adopt a 100 percent renewable energy target by 2025, and according to Roberts, a number of countries had already indicated willingness to commit.
“That would’ve been a huge diplomatic push and that would’ve started to change people’s perceptions about renewable energy,” Roberts tells MediaGlobal. “But it’s off the table. Not only is the carbon neutral policy basically dead in the water now, the Maldives just won’t have the capacity to think about climate change diplomacy.”